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The Gospel According To André: Andre Leon Talley’s Legacy According to Claire Sulmers

I was more than excited to get a ticket to see a screening of “The Gospel According to André,” during Tribeca Film Festival. The documentary traces iconic Vogue Editor at Large Andre Leon Talley’s life, from his humble beginnings in Durham, North Carolina, to his rise to the top ranks and front rows of high fashion.

André Leon Talley has always held a special place in my heart. Aside from us both being black and obsessed with style, I felt an even deeper connection to him as we shared similar Southern upbringings (I grew up in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and him in Durham, North Carolina), we both attended Ivy League schools (him Brown, me Harvard), and we both speak fluent French.

When I moved to Paris in 2008, I felt as if I was following in his fashionable footsteps. After studying his story, I knew that at 28, he was the Paris Bureau Chief of Women’s Wear Daily. I was around the same age when I moved to Paris, and hoped for a similar sizzling career. But we all know the story…though I interviewed at WWD, they wouldn’t give me the time of day, but I did find footing at Paris Vogue and later Italian Vogue before building my own media empire, Fashion Bomb Daily.

As I was coming up in the industry, I devoured anything Andre Leon Talley related voraciously. I studied his autobiography, read numerous articles about him, and lapped up his Life of André column in Vogue. Of course, the young ambitious woman that I was (and am), I wrote him several letters, some handwritten, some carefully composed on a typewriter, crafted on heavy weight Crane’s paper, telling him of our similarities and how much he inspired me, always asking for an informational meeting. I sent him emails more than once. He never responded.

As one of the protagonists in the film remarks, “from adversity comes prosperity,” and his seeming rejection, coupled with many other shut doors, resulted in me forging my own path, which has propelled me further than I ever dreamed possible.

As I watched The Gospel According to André, I was taken back to that young aspiring editor from 10+ years ago, who was seriously and utterly obsessed with André. His personality is bombastic and hilariously electric, his knowledge of fashion beyond brilliant, and his confidence and joie de vivre contagious. I reveled in the archival footage of him strutting down streets in pinstriped suits interviewing fashion greats like Karl Lagerfeld, Azzedine Alaia, and Yves Saint Laurent. Anyone who loves fashion will salivate over these delectable slices of style history.

Seeing André perched front row, next to Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington, right in front of Hamish Bowles and Mark Holgate (paging fashion nerds), I felt inspired yet again that a black man from humble beginnings could shoot to the top of the fashion food chain.

During the movie, I was waiting for him to talk about his symbolic status as ‘The Only One’ in many fashion shows, but he only touched on it lightly, intimating that after growing up in the Jim Crow south, the chiffon trenches, as he affectionately called them, were a cake walk. He also mentioned one instance of a PR woman referring to him as “Queen Kong” (basically referring to him as a gay ape). But instead of confronting the racism and homophobia head on, André let it slide. Anna Wintour, who was interviewed for the movie, admits that André never brought up race or any adversity, but that it undoubtedly, ‘bubbled under the surface.’

At the end, Mr. Talley appeared on a panel with the film’s producers and opened up the floor for questions. Though I’m normally shy, I knew I had to stand up and ask the one burning question that had been on my mind for years. I walked up to the front (after Mr. Talley complimented my blinged out black sequined ensemble), and said in front of a hushed audience: “Diana Vreeland acted as a mentor to you, and took you under her wing, which was instrumental in your career. How important is mentorship to you, and what have you done to groom the next generation of fashion editors?” He responded, “The world has changed since [I met my mentor] Diana Vreeland in 1974. It was a very small world. It’s a bigger world today and I just hope I can mentor through example. Through what I love on my Instagram. If you see me on the street, I’ll talk to you…I hope I’m an inspiration to a lot of people of many colors, many moods, and many sexualities. I hope to continue to inspire.” And there it was.

For many years, I prayed that Andre Leon Talley would reach down from his gilded perch and impart some knowledge or offer wise words to help me navigate the treacherous fashion waters. Sadly, I never received that coveted meeting–but I was indeed able to emulate him by example. Though I learned French on my own, moving to Paris and even thinking that WWD could be a possibility was thanks to Andre. My bold act of sending letters and resumes to all grades of Editors (including Glenda Bailey, Joe Zee, and Anna Wintour) didn’t seem like such a bold move–if Andre could do it, so could I. Andre Leon Talley was and will always be an inspiration and an example of what is possible in fashion. He broke down the door and glided past the velvet rope, allowing us all to dream that one day fashion could be our vocation. He did it with grace and panache, all the while undoubtedly swallowing stings of racism of homophobia with his signature smile.

I thank him for setting an example and inspiring me and so many other people who don’t fit into a box, to believe that we, too, could embody this style infused narrative of the New American Dream.

The Gospel According to André hits theaters May 25th. Find local listings at TheGospelAccordingtoAndre.com.
***Thank you to Jeff for the invitation!
**In case you were wondering what I was wearing that elicited André’s overflowing praise…

I rocked a Malene Birger sequined top, Michael Kors sequined pants, Gianvito Rossi shoes, and Gucci specs.

Fashion editors and icons Paul Wharton and Emil Wilbekin were also in attendance.


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